In “Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda,” Noam Chomsky examines the development of propaganda in the United States.
He begins by asking his readers what kind of a democracy they want to live in (Chomsky 9).
His first definition of a democracy is one in which citizens can “participate in a meaningful way in the management of their own affairs and the means of information are open and free” (Chomsky 9).
But his second definition of a democracy is one in which the majority of the population are reduced to passivity and information is controlled in a narrow ideological framework (Chomsky 10). This latter definition is the result of a successful propaganda campaign, which has only strengthened in recent years.
Chomsky writes that the “first modern government propaganda operation” took place under the Woodrow Wilson Administration (11). Wilson was elected president on a platform of “Peace Without Victory.” During the First World War, the American population was mostly pacifistic and didn’t want to be involved in a European war. In response to this, the Wilson administration established the Creel Committee to turn a “pacifistic population into a hysterical, war-mongering population” (Chomsky 11–12).
During the Red Scare, similar techniques were used to take away the threat of the labor unions, while restricting freedom of the press and freedom of political thought (Chomsky 12). This was widely supported by the media and business community.
Intellectuals, rather than denouncing these methods as unethical, enthusiastically supported them. For political commentators such as Walter Lippmann, intellectuals had a specialized role to play in society. They were an elite group responsible for carrying out the “executive function” of “planning” and “understanding the common interests” of the population (Chomsky 15–17).
Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the fields of public relations and propaganda, writes in “Propaganda”:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. (37)
Intellectuals themselves are indoctrinated (through the media, educational system, etc.) to represent those in power. While they may condemn the crimes of other states, they often ignore the crimes of their own. If they applied the same moral standards to themselves that they did to others, they would be held accountable. Many Intellectuals have been trained to submit to the status quo and not challenge the legitimacy of their institutions. They have internalized the values of corporate-state power to such an extent that they are often not aware of their biases.
In “How the Young are Indoctrinated Today,” Chomsky writes:
Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.” But educated the right way: limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.
In “Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky,” he says:
The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions. (Chomsky 111)
They reward discipline and obedience, and they punish independence of mind. If you happen to be a little innovative, or maybe you forgot to come to school one day because you were reading a book or something, that’s a tragedy, that’s a crime―because you’re not supposed to think, you’re supposed to obey, and just proceed through the material in whatever way they require.
And in fact, most of the people who make it through the education system and get into the elite universities are able to do it because they’ve been willing to obey a lot of stupid orders for years and years―that’s the way I did it, for example. Like, you’re told by some stupid teacher, “Do this,” which you know makes no sense whatsoever, but you do it, and if you do it you get to the next rung, and then you obey the next order, and finally you work your way through and they give you your letters. An awful lot of education is like that from the very beginning. Some people go along with it because they figure, “Okay, I’ll do any stupid thing that asshole says because I want to get ahead”; others do it because they’ve just internalized the values―but after a while, those two things tend to get sort of blurred. But you do it, or else you’re out: you ask too many questions and you’re going to get in trouble. (232)
That’s ultimately why public education was instituted in the United States in the first place: to meet the needs of newly-emerging industry. See, part of the process of trying to develop a degraded and obedient labor force was to make the workers stupid and passive — and mass education was one of the ways that was achieved (250)
Most of the population, according to influential figures such as Lippmann and Bernays, are not responsible enough to make decisions for themselves. They are only “spectators of action,” except when called upon, every few years, to vote for leaders who claim to represent their interests (Chomsky 17). They are not meant to be active participants in a democracy.
Therefore “the bewildered herd” are taught from a young age to believe what the state wants them to believe (Chomsky 18). They are instilled with “beliefs and doctrines” that serve the “interests of private power” and the “state-corporate nexus that represents it” (Chomsky 19).
In a totalitarian state, people are controlled by force and the threat of force. But in a democracy, people are controlled by propaganda. “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state” (Chomsky 20–21).
After the achievements of the Creel Committee, the PR industry expanded significantly (Chomsky 22). Around this time, a large part of the population was suffering from the Great Depression, which affected the role of labor organizing. (Chomsky 23). In 1935, after a number of strikes across the United States, labor activists won their first legislative victory with the Wagner Act, which gave employees the right to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike.
According to “The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration”:
After the National Industrial Recovery Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, organized labor was again looking for relief from employers who had been free to spy on, interrogate, discipline, discharge, and blacklist union members. In the 1930s, workers had begun to organize militantly, and in 1933 and 1934, a great wave of strikes occurred across the nation in the form of citywide general strikes and factory takeovers. Violent confrontations occurred between workers trying to form unions and the police and private security forces defending the interests of anti-union employers.
In a Congress sympathetic to labor unions, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in July of 1935. The broad intention of the act, commonly known as the Wagner Act after Senator Robert R. Wagner of New York, was to guarantee employees “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.”
This legislative success disrupted the control of the business establishment, so a lot of resources were used to break up strikes and demonize the labor movement. Plans such as the “Mohawk Valley Formula” were regularly carried out to intimidate strikers (Chomsky 25).
Some tactics of the “Mohawk Valley Formula,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor,
… included discrediting union leaders by calling them “agitators,” threatening to move the plant, raising the banner of “law and order” to mobilize the community against the union, and actively engaging police in strike-breaking activity, then organizing a back-to-work movement of pro-company employees. While the National Association of Manufacturers enthusiastically published the plan, the National Labor Relations Board called it a battle plan for industrial war.
Due to widespread propaganda, the public began to turn against strikers while supporting “vapid, empty concepts like Americanism” (Chomsky 25). This tactic is still used today with slogans such as “Support our troops.” These types of phrases are so vague that nobody wants to go against them. They are used to divert attention away from more serious issues. Rather than talking about policies, people are forced to argue about whether they are patriotic enough. If they are critical of the state, especially in times of war, they are portrayed as anti-American. They are vilified for not “supporting their country” while their alternatives are ignored.
The public relations industry continues to disseminate information to the public while making billions of dollars every year (Chomsky 22). In “The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival” Chomsky writes that the goal of the PR industry is to…
…undermine markets by creating uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices and the business world spends huge efforts on that. The same is true when the same industry, the PR industry, turns to undermining democracy. It wants to construct elections in which uninformed voters will make irrational choices.
The items lining the shelves are marketed just like the presidential elections on TV. Voters are conditioned to focus on the superficial characteristics of politicians rather than on their policies.
In the United States, the two main political parties “amass sufficient support from concentrated private capital to enter the electoral arena.” They try to dominate each other with propaganda through the media so they can get more votes (Chomsky). Those with more funding are often elected over those with less funding (Ferguson).
Thomas Ferguson writes in “The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems” that “the real market for political parties is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state… Blocs of major investors define the core of political parties and are responsible for most of the signals the party sends to the electorate.” (206)
Citizens select politicians to represent them. Despite their empty promises of hope and change, politicians are beholden to financial pressures more than to their constituents. Corporate power largely influences what policies will be enacted.
The United States is the only “state capitalist industrial society” that doesn’t have “national healthcare” while the rich have received billions of dollars in tax relief (Chomsky 28). Problems are growing domestically but “nobody in power has any intention of doing anything about them” (Chomsky 43). There are no serious proposals put forth to deal with homelessness, crime, unemployment, incarceration, gun violence, and so on. (Chomsky 43).
As Howard Zinn writes in “Let’s Come to Our Senses About the Election”:
[Politicians] offer no radical change from the status quo.
They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure.
They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.
We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box… will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.
The media have become a “corporate monopoly” with tremendous influence on the state (Chomsky 29). Those elected into power (Democrats and Republicans) are two factions of the business party. They take millions in campaign donations from corporations, which influences their policy decisions. And the majority of the population, instead of being able to engage meaningfully within the democratic system, are “marginalized and properly distracted” (Chomsky 29).
Despite the power of the propaganda system, a “dissident culture” has survived (Chomsky 38). Although it was slow to grow in the 1960s, by the 1970s, many popular movements developed such as the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the feminist movement, the anti-nuclear movement, etc. (Chomsky 38). This had a great civilizing effect on mainstream America. People began to organize, and in doing so, learned that they were not alone.
Chomsky says in an interview, “On the Repression of Democratic Movements, US Elections, and Future Prospects”:
There have been very significant improvements; many things are way better than they were 30 or 40 years ago… Feminist issues were barely on the agenda 30 or 40 years ago. Environmental issues didn’t exist. There was almost no opposition to aggression. When Kennedy started bombing South Vietnam–as he did–there was virtually no protest. It went on for years without protest. Native American rights were an object of ridicule. Interpersonal relations have changed, much for the better, in fact. The civil rights situation has improved. There’s been regression too, but overall there’s been significant improvement, and it didn’t come from elections. It came from extensive popular struggle–every one of those cases.
There has been a concerted effort since then to alienate people from each other. If the masses are convinced that their ideas do not matter, they will not look for others like them. Every week, the media will tell them what to fear. They will be distracted by consumption and entertainment.
Even though there is a massive amount of media propaganda, U.S. citizens still have a great deal of privilege. They have opportunities that many do not have in other countries. They can think critically about the information they receive, get involved in the democratic process, and support vulnerable communities.
In “A Power Governments Cannot Suppress,” Howard Zinn puts it like this:
The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.
Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson–that everything we do matters–is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back. (16)
Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda : With an Introduction by Mark Crispin Miller. 1928. New York, Ig publishing, 2005.
Chomsky, Noam. How the Young Are Indoctrinated to Obey. Alternet, December 1, 2014. https://chomsky.info/20141201/
Chomsky, Noam. Media Control : The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York, Seven Stories Press, 2010.
Chomsky, Noam. On the Repression of Democratic Movements, US Elections, and Future Prospects. Noam Chomsky interviewed by Nancy Nangeroni & Gordene O. MacKenzie. GenderTalk, October 30, 2000. https://chomsky.info/20001030/
Chomsky, Noam. The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival. April, 2011. https://chomsky.info/20110407-2/
Chomsky, Noam, et al. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. 2002.
Ferguson, Thomas. Golden Rule. University of Chicago Press, 15 Aug. 2011.
“Glossary | U.S. Department of Labor.” www.dol.gov, www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/glossary.
National Archives. “National Labor Relations Act (1935).” National Archives, 21 Sept. 2021, www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/national-labor-relations-act.
Zinn, Howard. A Power Governments Cannot Suppress. San Francisco, Calif., City Lights, 2007.
Zinn, Howard. Let’s Come to Our Senses About the Election. The Progressive. March 5, 2008. https://www.howardzinn.org/collection/come-to-senses-about-election/